Driving in Chicago is often an exercise in patience and skill. This is true of any major city, but if you have a car in Chicago, you should make sure you’re aware of certain things before getting on the road, such as one-way streets and toll roads along your route, as well as parking rules at your destination.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a new Chicago resident or someone just visiting for the weekend. Knowing how to effectively drive in the Windy City goes a long way toward improving your experience. In this guide, we’ll walk through common-sense tips for safely getting around town, either in your own car or the vehicle you’re renting through Avail.
Tips for driving through Chicago
The following list of tips includes need-to-know information about Chicago’s street and highway system, bike infrastructure and road rules.
1. Know the local laws and regulations
This should be common sense for any driver, but knowing Chicago’s local traffic laws and regulations is one of the best ways to stay safe and help your neighbors. It’s illegal to use hand-held cell phones while driving, for example. You must also yield to pedestrians, emergency vehicles and construction zones.
If you have the time, review the Illinois Rules of the Road to ensure you’re up to date on the ins and outs of driving in Chicago.
2. Watch for one-way streets
Many of Chicago’s streets — especially in the downtown corridor — are one-way thoroughfares. The last thing you want is to find yourself traveling down them in the wrong direction. Be mindful of signs and instructions when driving around the city. When in doubt, use a trusted smartphone navigation app to plan an efficient route.
And if you do find yourself heading the wrong way, don’t panic. Just turn onto the next available cross street to get back on track.
3. Watch for cyclists and pedestrians
Chicago’s density, bike infrastructure, sidewalks and public transit make it a fantastic city for cyclists and pedestrians. Having a car in Chicago means paying extra attention to your surroundings, especially near bike lanes and crosswalks, and sharing the road.
4. Be aware of toll roads
Many major highways in and out of Chicago — such as I-90, I-290 and I-88 — are part of the Illinois Tollway. If you’re planning to drive on them, prepare to pay the appropriate rates. This is especially true for road trips from Chicago, where you’ll probably need to hop on the interstate to get out of town.
If you’re averse to paying tolls and want to find alternate routes, be mindful of the additional travel time this can require. In some cases, it may be easier to pay the toll.
5. Know the best times to avoid the road
Avoiding rush-hour traffic is one of the best pieces of advice for driving in any major city. Chicago is no exception. If you’re able to, consider staying off the road between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The best times to drive through Chicago are usually early in the morning or after 7 p.m. Saving errands for the weekend — especially Sunday — can also help.
If you cannot avoid the busiest times of the day because of your regular commute, try to leave early and give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination.
6. Use a parking app
Whether you need street or garage parking, finding a spot in Chicago can be a real pain. If you haven’t done so already, download at least two parking apps in Chicago. Make sure one of them is ParkChicago, which is the most convenient way to pay for metered street parking in the downtown Loop and other areas. For the second, you’ll want a third-party app to help find and reserve garage and lot parking. There are a number to choose from, so compare them and see which best meets your needs.
7. Watch for buses
Chicago’s public transit system includes a large number of buses. As a driver, you must be aware of them as you make your way down busy city streets. As they make their stops and let passengers on or off, they will routinely change lanes and enter and exit the flow of traffic. If you’re behind a bus, be ready to slow down or stop for them as they make their way throughout the city.
8. Use your blinker
Using your turn signal isn’t just a best practice for driving. It’s the law. Using your blinker correctly lets other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists know your plans. Whether you’re just changing lanes, parallel parking or turning onto another street, your blinker alerts other drivers to your next move.
9. Understand the grid pattern
Chicago is famous for its grid system that underlies the streets and addresses. In 1901, the city adopted the grid system proposed by Rogers Park resident Edward Brennan to help reduce confusion caused by repeated street names and numbers. Chicago’s grid system takes some time to acclimate to, but once you understand how it is set up, you should be good to go.
On a basic level, the Chicago grid has a north-south axis and an east-west axis. The center point is the intersection of State St and Madison St in the Loop. Each street address contains a cardinal direction initial (N, S, E or W), and address numbers usually increase by 100 per block. By this logic, if you head eight blocks north from Madison St. on State St., you’ll be at 800 N. State St.
There are some other quirks, too. Chicago’s street signs reference the grid to help you know where you are in relation to the center point. And the street names on the city’s South Side directly reference the grid, such as 55th Street marking the start of the 5500 South block. When you’re looking for a street address, even numbers are on the north and west sides of the street, while odd numbers are on the south and east sides. Almost all east-west streets in the Loop are named after a U.S. president, such as Roosevelt and Monroe. On the far west side of the city, north-south streets located west of Pulaski St. have names that start with consecutive letters of the alphabet.
This is one of the most complex elements of living in Chicago, but once you have a handle on it, you’ll find your way around in no time.
10. Check times of events
Chicago is filled with large entertainment venues, from Wrigley Field to the Aragon Ballroom to Grant Park. After all, there’s no shortage of fun stuff to do in Chicago. So you can almost guarantee heavy traffic around the area once a concert, sports game or other major event lets out.
While you don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of every event happening across the city, be mindful of big events and how they might impact your commute. If you know the Bears are hosting the Packers at Soldier Field, you may want to avoid that part of town if you can help it.
Before you grab your keys and hit the road, consider opening up your favorite search app and typing in something like “Chicago events today” or “Chicago sporting events this weekend” to see what’s happening in the area.
11. Be assertive
If you’re new to the area, there’s one thing you must do when driving on Chicago’s busy streets: be assertive. This doesn’t mean cutting off other cars, rather, you may have to make a more proactive choice toward changing lanes, keeping up with traffic and paying attention to other drivers. Be polite, but don’t be afraid to use your horn if necessary. Just remember there’s a big difference between being an assertive driver and an aggressive one.
12. Keep an eye out for signs
Traffic signs will alert you to road closures. Parking signs will let you know where you can and can’t park your vehicle. Street signs can help you navigate. This is especially helpful on the city’s expressways, where exit lanes may be on either side of the highway. Don’t just rely on your phone’s navigation to get around; keep an eye out for landmarks and other helpful details to find your way.
Driving in Chicago doesn’t have to be scary
Getting around Chicago takes time and practice, and if you follow our tips, you’ll have much less to worry about. Whether you’re driving into town for the weekend or have recently moved here, you’ll find that getting around isn’t that scary once you get used to it. You may eventually find that you prefer not to even use a car for your daily errands or commute.
However, there will always be a time when having a car comes in handy. If you don’t own a car and want to avoid the high cost of car rental, check out car sharing in Chicago through Avail. Car sharing works similarly to renting, but Avail has dozens of neighborhood locations with contactless pick-up and drop-off. No waiting in line means you can get on your way faster. Avail vehicles are owned by locals, and they’re all cleaned, inspected and offer insurance protection from Allstate to ensure you have a safe and pleasant trip.